For most, summer break means freedom: slow mornings, Popsicles, Slip ‘N Slides, and late bedtimes.
But for parents like me who have kids with special needs, it also means the end of the predictability our kids rely on to regulate. They miss the structure and rhythm of the school day. And let’s face it, we parents miss the structure of the school day too. It can be hard for us to replicate the same routine our children depend on nine months out of the year. During the summer, our days are marathons that begin at sunup and don’t end until sundown.
I have six kids in total: two are teenagers with jobs, and the other four are 11 and under. Three of those kids have special needs, and the caboose is a cute but mischievous toddler.
Most days, I count down the hours and minutes until naptime and then bedtime. I drag myself over the finish line at the end of the day, only to collapse in a tired bump on the couch, no brain left to do anything except watch a mindless Netflix show, then pass out for the night. Then I do it again the next day.
My older kids’ summers were dreamy: hours spent playing in the backyard, splashing in the kiddie pool, and building cool structures out of stuff lying around. They rode their bikes to friends’ houses and the town pool when they were older.
Internet articles tell us our kids need plenty of unstructured playtime during the summer. They tell us boredom is good for them. They tell us our kids need a summer from the 1980s: tech-free and carefree.
That may be great for some kids, but my kids with special needs don’t have the skills necessary for such a summer. My cognitively delayed child likely won’t ever be able to ride her bike around town. And while my child with poor executive functioning is technically old enough to be on her own, she can’t make good decisions. They all need close supervision, so I am always on.
This summer, I’ve gotten better at building in pockets of time for myself. I hired a high schooler to come once a week to hang out with the kids for a few hours so I can sit at a coffee shop alone with my laptop and a book. And I’ve gotten better at sharing my summer struggle with others. When I meet up with friends at the park, instead of painting a happy picture of our days, I am more honest about how hard it is. More often than not, they know exactly what I’m talking about because they’re in the same boat.
The feeling of that first drop-off is what’s getting me through the summer. That blissful feeling of returning to my quiet house, knowing that all my kids are safe at school, happy, and cared for by teachers they love. The feeling of running errands without a) bringing a field trip with me or b) having to negotiate with my husband so I can go alone.
If you have a friend with special needs kids, reach out to them. Ask them how you can partner with them and help them this summer. It might be as simple as bringing them a meal so they can hang out with their kids instead of multi-tasking kids and dinner. Or bring your kids over with some sidewalk chalk and a box of Popsicles to help distract your friends’ kids and help pass a long summer afternoon.
If you are the parent of a special needs child, ask for help. Don’t pretend everything is going well. Tell someone how you’re really doing. If you have the means, find a babysitter and schedule some alone time for yourself. If you can’t afford a babysitter, try asking a friend for a babysitting swap. At the very least, schedule downtime every day. At our house, 1:00-2:30 is quiet time, where the toddler takes a nap and the older kids (all not yet readers) sit in separate rooms and listen to an audiobook while looking at books or drawing. It’s a non-negotiable time every day. I use that time to read a book and take a power nap to recharge for the long afternoon ahead.
Most of all, give yourself grace. You’re a great parent and you’re doing your best. Summer is just a season, and the kids will be back in school before you know it.